The U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) issued a statement earlier this week regarding testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit Committee on Financial Services regarding the potential perils of “derisking.”
As described by the GAO, “derisking is the practice of depository institutions limiting certain services or ending their relationships with customers to, among other things, avoid perceived regulatory concerns about facilitating money laundering or other criminal activity such as financing to terrorist groups.” Derisking is a significant ongoing issue in AML-related enforcement. As we have blogged, the U.S. Treasury Department previously attempted to allay the fears driving the phenomenon of derisking by (i) suggesting that U.S. banks have overreacted to concerns over AML/BSA enforcement by unnecessarily terminating correspondent banking relationships with foreign banks; (ii) noting that these relationships are crucial to the global economy; and (iii) stating that reflexive derisking could destabilize or disrupt access to U.S. financing, hinder international trade, cross-border business, and charitable activities, and make claim remittances harder to effectuate.
It is difficult to distill clear and specific practical points from the recent GAO statement, entitled “Bank Secrecy Act – Further Actions Needed to Address Domestic and International Derisking Concerns” (“Derisking Statement”). This is partly because, during the course of listing various perceived concerns regarding the practice of derisking, the Derisking Statement merely comments somewhat vaguely that, “[w]ithout accessing the full range of BSA/AML factors that may be influencing banks to derisk or close branches, Treasury, the federal banking regulators, and Congress do not have the information needed to determine if BSA/AML regulations and their implementation can be made more effective or less burdensome.”
Bearing in mind the above limitations of the statement, the Derisking Statement summarizes itself as follows:
Why GAO Did This Study
In recent years, some Southwest border residents and businesses reported difficulty accessing banking services, including experiencing bank account terminations and bank branch closings in the region. In addition, the World Bank and others have reported that some money transmitters have been losing access to banking services with depository institutions.
This statement is based on findings from GAO’s February 2018 report on access to banking services along the Southwest border (GAO-18-263) and March 2018 report on the effects of derisking on remittance flows to fragile countries (GAO-18-313). GAO discusses (1) the extent to which banks are terminating accounts and closing branches in the Southwest border region, (2) the extent to which money transmitters serving selected fragile countries are facing banking access challenges, and (3) actions relevant U.S. agencies have taken to respond to these challenges. For those reports, GAO surveyed more than 400 banks, developed an econometric model on the drivers of branch closures, and conducted case studies on four countries to assess the effects of derisking on remittances flows.
What GAO Recommends
GAO made five recommendations in the two reports: to Treasury and the federal banking regulators to conduct a retrospective review of BSA/AML regulations and their implementation, and to Treasury to assess shifts in remittance flows to nonbanking channels. Banking regulators agreed with the recommendations. GAO requested comments from Treasury, but none were provided.
Ultimately, what is clear from the Derisking Statement is that the spectrum of financial services available to certain markets is shrinking due to concerns over AML/BSA enforcement, which the U.S. government somewhat perversely suggests are overblown. What is not clear from the statement is whether U.S. regulators will tackle this issue, or how they should tackle this issue.